- Virgil’s Ascanius: Imagining the Future in the Aeneid by Anne Rogerson
Ascanius, argues Rogerson (1), the Aeneid’s smallest hero, not only represents the glories to come after the Aeneid; Vergil also “uses Ascanius to represent the manifold difficulties associated with looking forward beyond the present.” While this could appear to be a clear statement of the obvious, in fact Rogerson masterfully pursues the ambiguities in Vergil’s Ascanius, whom she compares with numerous other versions of this character. The picture of him as a small child “clinging to his father’s hand and following in his footsteps as he escapes” from Troy was the dominant one from the late-sixth century bce. Rogerson, after developing this picture, then explores the “ambiguity” implicit in this singular figure (although noting his multiple names even in Vergil), examining him as a symbol of “a contested future” that suggests “alternative visions” (11).
Chapter 2 examines the myths around the sons (plural) of Aeneas: “Virgil has tidied up the family tree” (15). Homer’s Poseidon mentions several sons, as well as sisters, of Aeneas (Il. 20.307–308), as do Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 1.55.3) and Servius (ad Aen. 4.159). Rogerson also discusses the ambiguity between the names Ascanius and Iulus, and the implied conflicts between him and the son of Silvius, son of Lavinia. In chapter 3, “Ilus to Iulus,” she examines “how the Trojans are to leave enough of their Trojan-ness behind to become Roman” (37). Jupiter promises that Ascanius will rule the new city his father is about to found until the birth of Romulus and Remus, donec regina sacerdos/Marte gravis geminam partu dabit Ilia prolem (Aen. 1.273–274), “until a royal priestess of Trojan descent, pregnant by Mars, gives birth to twin progeny” (40): Rogerson here argues that the name Ilia edges Ascanius out of the line of succession. Chapter 4 examines the responses of Andromache (who associates him with her dead son Astyanax) and Dido; in the case of Dido, he becomes (through Cupid’s impersonation of him) “a further example of the destructive nature of substitutions and false imagines in the Aeneid” (72). [End Page 588]
Chapters 5 and 6 examine his strength in the Trojan games, the frenzied reaction of the Trojan women to the fire of the ships, and the omens of fire with both Anchises (2.647–649) and Ascanius (2.679–684), as well as with Aeneas at 8.680–681 and 10.270–271, and the broader tradition of these omens. In the concluding chapter 10 Rogerson compares the roles of Ascanius and of Pallas, each of them embodying his father’s hope for the future (194). She elaborates numerous parallels between the two of them, concluding that the exact nature of the relationship between them is not clear: “While Ascanius is still seen as the future ruler in Italy, it is nonetheless Pallas who plays the active manly role in Aeneas’ imagined (if impossible) continuation of his son’s story” (201); “And standing as a symbol of hope for the future . . . he reminds us of the inexorable and . . . unknowable workings of fate” (203).
Rogerson has done a fine job of defining and substantializing the figure of Ascanius in Vergil’s Aeneid. A study such as this also helps to define how Vergil worked with and brought together some rather obscure strands of Trojan/Roman history into his epic in a way that makes it so much more powerful than it might have been without this appealing child who comes to embody the Trojan/Roman hope for the future.